Tuesday, December 29, 2015

It's Bad Enough Our Dogs Can Do It. Do We Really Want Machines That Can Do It?

A lot of it is said to have evolved over the tens of thousands of years since wolves decided to share our campfires. Modern dogs have developed an amazing ability to read our emotions and, as often as not, they've figured out some way to turn it to some immediate advantage (if you doubt that, you've never owned a beagle).

It's the canine ability to play us that stuck in my mind when I read that 2016 could be the year for the introduction of emotion-sensing facial recognition software.

Once the robots - your smartphone or any of the other intelligent devices - can read us well enough to decode our emotional states what will they - or, more aptly, the wizards who design and programme them - be able to do with that little treasure trove of information?

Forget Hal, do you want a pocket circuit board bonding with you?  First, a confession. Some months ago my daughter got me a device known as the Amazon Echo. It's a black, cylindrical thingee. You speak to it, calling it Alexa, giving it commands or enquiries. "Alexa, give me the news" or "Alexa, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon?" or "Alexa, play blues music." Alexa then goes to the Cloud and tries to fetch whatever you've requested. "Alexa, set a timer for X-minutes" is a common sort of thing. Alexa responds with a pleasantly non-robotic voice, very human. Here's the thing - I often respond, in turn, with "thank you." Then I realize I just politely thanked a robot - and I meant it. People, that's not good. Imagine what would happen, over time, if the damned thing could read my emotions and engage me accordingly.

This is not a good thing. We know these smart devices already rat us out. They keep tabs on our activities, the time of day we engage with them, the requests we make, what interests us, what we buy online and so much more. They monitor our movements and location by onboard GPS. All that metadata allows the outfits that get us using this stuff to develop sophisticated profiles of us. Your dog may be able to read you like a book but he can't build a profile of your shopping habits, your entertainment preferences or your political leanings.

Users already worry that Alexa can eavesdrop on their conversations. Amazon says they don't listen in. Amazon hasn't said that they can't eavesdrop or that they never will, cross my heart and hope to die.

Stop the world, I want to get off.

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